Owned by the mapping company Navteq, which is owned by Nokia, the car is called a True Car. Navteq is a pioneer in digital mapping, and its True Car represents the next generation of map building. It drives around the city collecting a terabyte of information every day.
Its driver is Ron Jimenez, Navteq team lead, whose business card describes his work address in latitude and longitude -- 34 degrees 11'9" N, 118 degrees 30'4" W, aka Encino.
On a drizzly weekday, Jimenez and the company's polished director of product development, Sara Rossio, stand in the parking lot with the car, which is on a brief break from cruising every street in town.
"Ron is actually a geographer," Rossio says, as if describing an exotic species.
"We were just talking about how 10 years ago it wasn't even like this," Jimenez says. "We used to print out paper plots and write down the names of streets as we drove along. But now it's all changed."
Pre-existing maps are available from city or county governments and other local sources, so geographers don't necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. The trick is making sure those maps are correct. The Volkswagen Jetta Navteq Nokia True Car is now the tool of the trade.
Asked if there are ever mistakes, Jimenez laughs. "Oh yeah," he says. "For instance, Third Street. The county might have Third Avenue, or Drive. That's where we come in and clean up that stuff. It's labor-intensive. But when you just paste sources together and don't validate the data, you find lots of mistakes."
Navteq, which Nokia purchased in 2007, prides itself on accuracy. Navteq has been making maps for more than 25 years and It employs 1,000 geographers in 60 countries. "Our model is to hire local people who speak local languages, understand local laws and live in key areas," Rossio says. Its mapping systems are in four out of five cars on the road. Garmin uses its maps, as do Yahoo and MapQuest. Navteq's maps even work in areas where there is no GPS signal.
Navteq's staff is, in other words, composed of serious map geeks. Yet even in this golden age of geekdom, the company is not exactly well-known.
As Jimenez is inspecting the car, a man approaches with a question: "Is that a Google car?" he asks, referring to Google's StreetView vehicles.
"No," Jimenez answers politely. "We're one of their competitors."
The man eyes the car's spinning Lidar, or Light Detection and Ranging device, which uses 64 lasers to collect a million points of data per minute as it spins. He asks, "Is that what I think it is?"
"What do you think it is?"
"A mapping thing?" the man says.
"Correct," Jimenez says.
Satisfied, the man walks away. "Believe it or not," Jimenez says, "Google used to be one of our customers until they decided to go create their own maps."
Though it may seem like the whole world has already been mapped, the world doesn't stay the same. New things are built; old things are destroyed.
"I don't think my company has mapped the entire world," Jimenez says, getting into the car. "But we're getting there. I can tell you that it's something that never stops."
Even a mature market like Los Angeles evolves. The 405 freeway is an ongoing construction zone. Points of interest change, too. "A Citibank today could become a Bank of America tomorrow," Jimenez continues. "We have to keep up with all that."
Rossio nods and says, "Just to give you an order of magnitude, we make about 2.7 million changes a day in our database based on information from our field teams. And that's just an average."
Some cities rack up more change than others. Parts of India and the Middle East are changing extremely quickly. Massive events like the London Olympics, which require new infrastructure, drive huge amounts of change.
The Navteq cars collect street information in incredibly rich detail. In addition to the lasers -- which record a 3-D description, including the width of streets and the height of curbs, fire hydrants and buildings -- there are six panoramic cameras, high-def cameras to read street signs and devices to measure velocity and orientation.
"It's not only the shape of the road, the slope and curvature," Rossio says. "We know how many lanes. We know the painted stripes, the direction of travel. We know exactly where there's a speed limit sign."
They know not only where a hospital is located but also where the entrance to the ER is. They are very close to being able to understand where there are dips in the road, like potholes, or even where water accumulates. "We knew we wanted to really push the envelope in terms of building a next-generation system."
What to leave out can be more important than what to include. Trees, for example. "We don't do trees," Rossio says. "A lot of the car companies were worried about distraction. Anything that keeps your eyes off the road gets them very nervous."
More often than not, however, people get distracted by the Nokia True Car itself. Sometimes, they get so distracted they end up hitting the car, which screws up the accuracy of its equipment. The driver then has to recalibrate.
Rossio, who runs an R&D team, is focused on identifying next-generation problems and determining what information needs to be collected. Tracking the movements of buses, trains and ferries is one of her current preoccupations. "We're trying to understand the real-time data. Whenever I meet the field team, they always say, 'So you're the one who made me collect that?!' " Rossio laughs. "Yeah, that was me."
The carpool lanes come to mind. They were one of her first projects in L.A. A couple years ago, navigation systems never directed you out of carpool lanes the right way. "Because we didn't actually collect how many people could be in that HOV lane, or during what time of day, or in what type of vehicle. And so navigation devices just generally ignored it," she explains. "So we started collecting them."
What's next, mapping the ocean?
"We've talked about it," Rossio says, her voice as smooth as silk.